Faulkner at Churchill Downs

That Faulkner wrote about the Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated should come as no surprise, nor that his essay “Kentucky: May: Saturday” is not only about what happened on May 7, 1955, but a masterly  examination of the Derby as a quintessential American event and of the sport of kings itself.

The assignment was his second from the fledgling Sports Illustrated (founded by Henry Luce the previous August), his first being an exercise in dissonant apposition. That January Faulkner attended his first hockey game, one between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, and in “An Innocent at Rinkside” wrote: “It was filled with motion, speed. … discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical, like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools”. The poetry of hockey eluded the Mississippian.

James Street, the Mississippi minister-turned-journalist-turned novelist, was given the original 1955 Derby assignment, but Street died the September before the race. Sports Illustrated offered Faulkner $2000 plus a week’s expenses, including a $100-a-day chauffeured limousine; the kicker was a $500 bonus if the piece turned out to be as exceptional as they hoped from the Southern Nobelist. No fool he, Faulkner accepted immediately and after a trip to New York in April and the first days of May, he left the city for Louisville, where his publisher Don Klopfer sent him a note to the Brown Hotel informing him that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for A Fable. “It’s an easy 500 bucks for you,” Klopfer write, “and we’re all mighty pleased, although I don’t suppose you give a damn.” On the contrary, Faulkner, who considered A Fable his masterpiece, was quite pleased and those visiting the handsome, nattily-attired writer in his suite found him puffing on a briarwood pipe, smiling.

Far from rinkside in Madison Gardens, at Churchill Downs Faulkner was in his element; his father Murry had been a livery-stable owner in Oxford, he enjoyed riding as well as fox hunting and he had a fine eye for horseflesh. In an interview with The Courier-Journal, Faulkner reflected, “It’s interesting that you have tried to train blood and flesh to the perfection of a machine but that it’s still blood and flesh.” During his stay in Louisville Faulkner was accompanied by SI’s turf writer Whiney Tower, who was instructed “to try to see that our guest did not become so preoccupied with the available whiskey that he neglected his assignment.” To ensure against that seemingly likely possibility, Faulkner was to turn over 300 words each evening of their weeklong stay in Louisville for Tower to wire via Western Union to New York.

Tower, a legend in his own right and the nephew of Lexington horse-farm owner C.V. Whitney, found Faulkner to be “thoroughly professional”. “His knowledge of horses and their bloodlines went way back,” Tower wrote, “and I think the best part of his week may have been the day we skipped away from Louisville to visit farms in Lexington. At Claiborne Farm, he was very much taken with Nasrullah, later to become one of the all-time great stallions, and sire of, among others, Bold Ruler, another champion sire. But no horse he saw in Lexington that long day entranced Faulkner nearly so much as a beautiful gray, Mahmoud, an Epsom Derby winner, then 22 years old and galloping effortlessly in his paddock at the C.V. Whitney farm. On the way back to Louisville, Faulkner napped, but near Frankfort, he awoke suddenly, nostrils twitching above his mustache. “He sat straight up, rolled down his window and inhaled deeply,” Tower wrote. “‘I thought so!’ he exclaimed. ‘I don’t mistake that smell. There’s a distillery damn close to here.’”

As race day approached, Faulkner became more fascinated by the activity at Churchill Downs. Before his first trip to the press box, Tower wrote, Faulkner “asked in an excited schoolboyish way” whether he might meet acclaimed sportswriter Red Smith. The two proceeded to handicap the day’s races. Tower noted that Smith “relied mostly on past performance” in determining his bets, while Faulkner favored the conformation of each horse.

“Kentucky: May: Saturday” ran in the May 16, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated. Written in five parts to accentuate the build-up of tension and excitement that exploded in the two-minute race that had drawn over a hundred thousand people from all over the world, the essay was not so much about the race itself as a—somewhat rambling; it is Faulkner, after all—meditation on what the Derby means, a piece so subjective that Faulkner didn’t even mention how “Swaps”, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, had held the lead from the start and won despite a thrilling challenge from “Nashua”.

“THREE DAYS BEFORE”, framed the event in historical perspective: “This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too — the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival — Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod’s and Harbuck’s Stations; Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.” He linked this past history with his own present: “And knew Stephen Foster and the brick mansion of his song; no longer the dark and bloody ground of memory now, but already my old Kentucky:​ home.”

“TWO DAYS BEFORE”, he turned to the race: “Even from just passing the stables, you carry with you the smell of liniment and ammonia and straw — the strong quiet aroma of horses. And even before we reach the track we can hear horses — the light hard rapid thud of hooves mounting into crescendo and already fading rapidly on. And now in the gray early light we can see them, in couples and groups at canter or hand-gallop under the exercise boys. Then one alone, at once furious and solitary, going full out, breezed, the rider hunched forward, excrescent and precarious, not of the horse but simply (for the instant) with it, in the conventional posture of speed — and who knows, perhaps the two of them, man and horse both: the animal dreaming, hoping that for that moment at least it looked like Whirlaway or Citation, the boy for that moment at least that he was indistinguishable from Arcaro or Earl Sande, perhaps feeling already across his knees the scented sweep of the victorious garland.”

“ONE DAY BEFORE” looked back to former races: “It rained last night; the gray air is still moist and filled with a kind of luminousness, lambence, as if each droplet held in airy suspension still its molecule of light, so that the statue which dominated the scene at all times anyway now seems to hold dominion over the air itself like a dim sun, until, looming and gigantic over us, it looks like gold — the golden effigy of the golden horse, ‘Big Red’ to the Negro groom who loved him and did not outlive him very long, Big Red’s effigy of course, looking out with the calm pride of the old manly warrior kings, over the land where his get still gambol as infants, until the Saturday afternoon moment when they too will wear the mat of roses in the flash and glare of magnesium; not just his own effigy, but symbol too of all the long recorded line from Aristides through the Whirlaways and Count Fleets and Gallant Foxes and Citations: epiphany and apotheosis of the horse.”

“THE DAY” began ruminating about the horse, which once moved man’s body and goods, but now moved only his money. Food-supplying animals would, he prophesied, eventually become obsolete, but not horses, since they provide mankind with “something deep and profound in his emotional nature and need, a sublimation, a transference: man with his admiration for speed and strength, physical power far beyond what he himself is capable of, projects his own desire for physical supremacy, victory, onto the agent—the baseball or football team, the prize fighter. Only the horse race is more universal…”

“4:29 P.M.” is emotionally drained, an analytic response to spent anticipation: “We who watched have seen too much… we must turn away now for a little time, even if only to assimilate, get used to living with, what we have seen and experienced.” He focused on the dispersal of the crowds and the disgruntlement of the losing backers. “And so on. So it is not the Day after all, it is only the eighty-first one.”

Derby Day!

The Kentucky Derby is tomorrow! Looking over the sports section of The New York Times today and photos of the muddy track at Churchill Downs reminded me to get cracking and write up my own Derby recipes and traditions for my friends in other parts of the country.

How to Dress for the Derby

Derby is the time for considered bets or wild hunches, frosty mint juleps and dressing to the nines: elaborate hats or fascinators, colorful silk dresses or suits, finished off with heels and gloves. Men wear bright trousers, poplin or linen suits in ice cream colors, bright socks and fancy ties or bow ties, with seersucker and classic navy always in form. Hats are for the men, too, from bowlers to boaters (but no cowboy hats, please). Gentleman, please praise each woman’s hat: it’s expected!

Churchill Downs

I haven’t been to the actual race in years — when I was often included with my family in former Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler’s box at Churchill Downs. That was always a treat: no one could sing “My Old Kentucky Home” better than Happy, usually wearing a white linen three piece suit accompanied by movie stars like Natalie Wood, baseball players like Bob Feller or politicians such as the elegant Sen. Thurston B. Morton and his wife made sure to stop by to greet the Chandlers.

My good friend Amy Zemo Broadhurst has been at Churchill Downs all week, from Millionaire’s Row to the Winner’s Circle Suites to the Turf Club. The Turf Club, by the way, is where you will find the owners and trainers. No messy infield for Amy, who is immaculately dressed and entertains business clients during Derby. Should you fail in your quest for the good seats, there’s always the Infield, where the grass should be blue – but is too crowded to see. Tickets for the Infield used to be $20 when I was young, but are now $60. You are allowed to bring in food but not liquor though somehow liquor WILL make it through.

Derby Parties at Home

Alas, Happy is long dead and the real Kentucky Derby scene for me now is in the private parties held by Kentuckians in their homes. Even NON-Kentuckians like to celebrate the festive day and while your party may be as humble as a bucket of KFC and beer, here are some traditional ingredients for a successful party:

Country Ham

I used to buy my country ham and beaten biscuits from Taylor Farms in Cynthiana, Kentucky.  Farmer Taylor’s celebrated method of curing has been adapted by others but I now favor the country ham served by the fabled Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.  These hams have been cured by Meacham Hams in Sturgis, Kentucky for more than eighty years. Cooked or uncooked ham is available along with other delicious smoked meats; and they will also provide nicely trimmed biscuit cut slices. Rather than host a party, you may want to consider a traditional Derby breakfast to start the day off right. Happy and Mildred Chandler started this tradition during his first term as Governor in 1936. They served an excellent spread of country ham, grits, red eye gravy, scrambled eggs, biscuits, jam and plenty of hot coffee. This meal is no longer served at the Governor’s Mansion, but it’s still a wonderful menu.

Beaten Biscuits

While I prefer smallish buttermilk biscuits with my ham, beaten biscuits are an old Kentucky tradition.  On the crisp side, the biscuits are made by beating dough with a wooden mallet for half an hour, no more, no less.  Luckily for all hostesses who don’t employ a cook or have the patience to make them, Meacham Hams sells them by the dozen.  Even stores like Liquor Barn sell them,  NOBODY wants to make beaten biscuits any more.   Halfway between a cracker and a biscuit, just add a little butter and a slice of ham. They are so good. However, if you want to be old-fashioned, here is an excellent old recipe.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons white sugar
1/4 cup lard, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/3 cup light cream
2 tablespoons cold water (optional)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Sift flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar together. Use a fork to “cut” the lard into the flour until it looks like coarse meal. Using a standing mixer, or a wooden spoon, mix the dough as you slowly add the cream. Mix well to form the dough into a ball, adding water if needed. Place the dough onto a tabletop, and knead slightly. With a mallet or a rolling pin, beat the dough a few times to form it into a rough rectangle. Fold the dough over, and then beat it out again. Repeat this process until the dough becomes white and blisters form on the surface, about 30 minutes. Roll out the dough to about 1/4 inch thick. Cut into 2 inch rounds, and prick the top with the tines of a fork: nine holes are traditional. Place on greased baking sheets. Bake until golden, about fifteen minutes.

Miss Jennie Benedict, a Louisville caterer, created Benedictine spread at the turn of the last century.  Years ago, certain bakeries in Louisville used to bake pink and green loaves of bread just for these popular finger sandwiches, a staple at Derby parties, weddings and showers.  I have even served these at a funeral where they were much enjoyed.  My recipe, taken from “Kentucky’s Best, Fifty Years of Great Recipes” by Linda Allison Lewis, was amended and given to me by Tish Clark of Prestonsburg, Kentucky:

Tish’s Benedictine

1 8 oz Philadelphia cheese, softened
1 tablespoon of mayonnaise
3 tablespoons of grated cucumber, drained well with a paper towel
1 teaspoon finely chopped green onions with tops
1 teeny tiny drop of green food coloring (the color should be delicate)
a dash of two of Tabasco
Blend all ingredients together and mix well. Yield: 10-12 servings (I multiply by eight.) You may serve this on trimmed bread as finger sandwiches or as a dip. Please note there is not a single drop of Benedictine liqueur used in this recipe! I like to make a nice pile of these sandwiches on a silver tray lined with a paper doily and garnished with a few cucumber slices and parsley. (Cover with a damp paper towel so your sandwiches don’t dry out and curl before serving. Refresh as necessary.) I also put out big crystal bowl of pimento cheese with Carr’s crackers, celery stalks, salty peanuts to encourage drinking and deviled eggs to prevent or at least stall off utter drunkenness.

Last week, Amy attended the Taste of Derby Festival and was served the most amazing new dish: Hot Brown Grits. This is an adaptation of the original hot brown recipe, originally created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville by Fred K. Schmidt in 1926 – long before people knew about pesky cholesterol. A hot brown is made from fresh roast turkey, tomatoes, cheddar and Mornay sauce, served atop thickly sliced toast, garnished with strips of bacon, served “piping hot and bubbly brown.” The Brown Hotel serves 800 hot browns a week but during Derby Week, they sell 1200 a day.

Hot Browns with Fried Cheese Grits

1 cup regular grits
1 cup (4 ounces) extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 large sweet onions
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pound roasted turkey slices
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
8 bacon slices
Prepare 1 cup regular grits according to package directions. Stir in 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese until melted. Pour hot cooked grits into a greased 9-inch square pan. Cover and chill 8 hours or until firm. Invert onto a cutting board, and cut into 4 squares. Cut each square into 4 triangles. Fry grits, in batches, in 2 tablespoons hot vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat 2 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Remove from pan, and set aside. Cook 2 large diced sweet onions and 1 tablespoon sugar in 2 tablespoons oil in skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, 20 minutes or until deep golden brown. Arrange 4 grits triangles in a single layer in a lightly greased individual baking dish or large baking dish; top with turkey, sautéed onion, and cheese sauce. Repeat with remaining grits triangles, turkey, onion, and sauce:
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup shredded Swiss or Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk in flour, and cook, whisking constantly, 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a boil, and cook, whisking constantly, 1 to 2 minutes or until thickened. Whisk in cheese, salt, and pepper. Pour over grits, onions and meat, broil 6 inches from heat 4 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browned; remove from oven. Top evenly with cooked bacon and sliced tomato. Serve immediately.

I serve mint juleps in individual silver or pewter cups as well as a treasured set of Louisville Stoneware cups bearing the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home.”  My ex-husband is an Englishman, so I adopted the habit of serving a pitcher or two of Pimm’s Cup, made with Pimm’s No. 1 herbal liqueur and gin, fresh unsweetened lemonade and garnished with cucumber spears, a slice of apple and a sprig of mint. Last year I served bourbon sours instead of mint juleps and those retro drinks went over in a big way!

As for bourbon, educate yourself on the different kinds of bourbon.  Favorite brands include Four Roses Single Barrel (which has a high rye content), Jim Beam’s Basil Hayden, Old Grand Dad, Buffalo Trace (a high corn blend) then wheated bourbons like the very famous Maker’s Mark, Rebel Yell and any of the Van Winkle bourbons. Small batch artisanal bourbons like Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve have risen in popularity over the past ten years.

Lay a table with your very best linens, platters and crystal. Don’t forget to arrange flowers from your own garden, or red roses from a florist are always appropriate. Be ready to get the party started at least an hour before the actual race starts. And have hankies ready for the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” there shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house! And you made need those hankies later anyway for tears of jubilation or losing bets. When the day is over, the owners, breeders and trainers start planning for the next Derby, as does a good hostess. Names are crossed off or added to lists, paper goods or swizzle sticks are bought on sale for next year.

(Lynn Weddington Tucker is a Kentuckian living in New York City since 1976. She has been a fashion designer, publicist and best of all, mother. Lynn is a sustaining member of the Junior League (like any good Southern girl) and as a Methodist, has all the ingredients on hand in her pantry for a casserole for a potluck. Lynn is a card-carrying Kentucky Colonel and loves a good party.)

Lynn Weddington Tucker (Churchill Downs photo by Dave Black)